For every primary election, 12th Ward Chairwoman Rev. Jacqueline Fielder holds a candidates forum for the residents in her district. At these forums, constituents receive information on what their elected officials have done and what prospective officials would do differently.
Unfortunately most ward chairmen on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee are not like Fielder. Their contact with those they represent can range from occasional meetings or informational flyers to nothing at all.
“Per our bylaws, our job is to get out the vote. Our people need to be engaged and educated in this electoral process. I think we should accommodate the needs of the community,” Fielder said. “I think by doing a lot of events it puts pressure on the title holders. Sometimes we go door to door. I think we go over and beyond the bylaws of what’s required of us.”
In the primary election May 18, citizens will have the chance to run for committee seats on the ACDC as all members are up for re-election.
“I’m really interested in mentoring, especially young people who are interested in running. If there’s an open seat where no one is running, some one can do a write-in campaign and even if there isn’t an opening they can do a write-in campaign,” Fielder said. “If there is a vacancy and no one filed a petition or if it’s an off-year, I can make an appointment. We look for people who are serving their community.”
Fielder is the daughter of one of the strongest ward chairs in Pittsburgh history, Dock Fielder. At one time the Black ward chairs were power brokers in the Black community. No one was elected without their support but those days are long gone.
The organization is meant to serve as a body representing Democratic constituents of Allegheny County. Their mission is to get those in their party to vote, but they also hold the power of endorsing a candidate.
“I think (the endorsement) used to carry a lot of power, but not now,” said Fielder. “As far as our bylaws,(the endorsement) carries a lot of power as far as our committee people being bound to support the candidate.”
Louis Kendrick, a committeeman with the 12th Ward, can remember a time when the endorsement carried a lot of weight. He said years ago, committee people also held influence over hiring in city departments.
“What it used to be is the committeemen had power like you wouldn’t believe,” Kendrick said.
Remnants of this powerful legacy could account for why the ACDC is often guarded about openings in their committee. Kendrick also said the community should have more influence on who the ACDC chooses to endorse as well as who they push to run for elected office.
“There’s so much dissension among the committee people,” Kendrick said. “They try to handpick people to run for their positions. If people run independently, they can’t be influenced,” Kendrick said. “If a council seat or another position is up for election we need to make the entire community aware and encourage people to run. I don’t think the committee should make that decision. Let the people make that decision.”
A look at the ACDC’s website tells the story of what the organization has become. The list of ward chairmen and committee members is outdated with many phone numbers now disconnected.
“Ninety percent of the people don’t know who their committee people are, who their chairman is,” said Kendrick. “We went out of our way to tell them we were the committee people. Committee people have a responsibility to knock on people’s doors and let them know who we are.”
An accurate list of openings on the ACDC could not be sent to the New Pittsburgh Courier without the permission of ACDC Chairman Jim Burn. Several calls to Burn have never been returned. Each district in the city is supposed to have one committee man and one committee woman, but many don’t have either or just one. In turn these committee people in each ward vote for a chairman. Thus the term ward chair.